Friday, February 10, 2006


How many of you had lawns at your houses growing up? How often did you actually play on them?

Growing grass at home, I presume, was done out of a desire to have a space where kids could play and (maybe if the yard were big enough) have lawn parties on. However, given that kids don't play outside in the grass (at least not at home -- I did a little when I was young, but not since I was 10 or 11 and I think I was more of an exception) and no one has lawn parties, why do people still go to great lengths to maintain lawns? Particularly, after children have grown, what is the benefit that justifies the cost? Is it really that much prettier than the alternative? I guess there may be some sort of pet argument, but do pets really need well manicured grass?

Just so it is clear. I like grass. I love big grass fields in parks and on college campuses and even golf courses. I am merely wondering why the convention is to have grass at home -- particularly in urban or suburban settings where there is likely a park or school nearby.

When I was in high school in San Francisco, the residents of the neighborhood around the school were required to maintain a small patch of grass in front of their houses. It had been part of a neighborhood agreement and if anyone violated this by cementing their front lawns (which many families - especially Asian families - did in other parts of the city), they would have to pay a yearly fine.

I think there are some legitimate reasons for that. This makes the neighborhood more aesthetically pleasing. This type of "beauty" is a positive externality that makes the neighborhood seem cleaner and safer. This is probably why the my high school and the elementary school next door were one of the most sought after public schools in the city. And also why the house value in this area was remarkably high.
I certainly have no problems with neighborhood covenents designed to protect property values (my dad is a developer -- he writes these things). Indeed, later in the course we'll discuss neighborhoods and what makes them attractive, and externalities will play an enormous role in that discussion.

I am merely questioning why the convention is to maintain a lawn. As the link to the discussion of costs points out, lawn care is hard. Is there nothing else which produces a similar effect with lower costs?
I think that when people own property, they're owning part of the American Dream. Corny, I know, but let me explain.

When people buy property, they're also buying status. Owning your own home is a sign of financial stability and wealth (versus renting). When people are envisioning their first home, they probably envision cut grass (as is the convention for a nice home). Thus, if a homeowner were to let his or her grass grow out, the homeowner would be losing some of that status that he or she covets. Biologically, having a clean lawn is like the tail on a peacock. It serves no purpose, but to survive in spite of it is a symbol of strength. The high cost of maintaining a lawn is exactly what makes maintaining a lawn attractive.
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